We’ve been sitting here for a while now, in a long sad row. My legs are crossed tightly, awkwardly, like a Hebrew letter written in a narrow sans serif font. I have to point my toes like a ballerina and draw my foot in when someone brushes past. I shift surreptitiously in my chair, massaging a chubby buttock against the wooden slats. And then I spot him, walking across towards us with confidence, the corners of his mouth twitching in readiness to smile. I sit upright in my chair and uncross my arms, make my own lips curl upwards, raise my eyebrows just a little in what I hope is an alluring, expectant expression. “Hello!” he exclaims warmly, bending down, brushing feathery-moustached lips lightly against my cheek. “Great to see you.” But he is already looking away, eyes ahead, walking the gantlet, trying to escape our glances unharmed, a knight braving a frighteningly eager line of females, a Gawain beneath the coverlets, with a dozen Ladies at his bedside. Lizzie shoots out a hand, catches his forearm expertly as he passes, like a footballer’s foul, like a prankster tripping a friend. “Hey,” she says, “Don’t you want to dance?” He beams. “I was just going to get a drink. But we’ll definitely dance later,” he promises. “Ladies.” He nods at no one in particular and scuttles off.
It’s like being part of a Greek chorus. Opinions are offered, judgements are made, criticisms are honed. Skirts are smoothed down at intervals. And, occasionally, there are suppressed sighs. At least I have someone to chat to. Although I sometimes feel like one of Macbeth’s witches, ready with prophesies and curses, but distant from the real centre of power, exiled from Glamis, far from the throne. Tanda after tanda passes in tedious succession. I try to blend out the shiny happiness of the women who are in men’s arms, try not to look at the smiles, the closed eyelids, fluttering open at the end of songs, the expressions of someone waking from a delicious dream. It’s been an hour now.
Sean is still standing in the corner, ready to nod his head vigorously in response to any pair of female eyes accidentally pointed in his general direction, like a nodding dog on a dashboard that is somehow remote controlled by eye beams, its waggle-dance set off by the lightest and most oblique of glances. Would his embrace be better than nothing? I consider for a moment. But my right arm still aches from his wrestler’s hold and I cringe at the memory of the twinges in my lower back as he whipped me back and forth in boleos, as if my spine were a long piece of rope and he a valiant cowboy lassooing cattle.
The few men who walk by seem to avert their eyes as they pass. Their pace suddenly quickens, they are in a hurry to get to — well, where else except to those lithe young women, the ones with the swirly ink on their upper backs, the glimmer of tiny diamonds in belly buttons, the long silky hair, the big doe eyes, the short skirts revealing caffe latte coloured bambi legs. I can’t help feeling that this is the dunces’ corner, the grandmas’ neighbourhood. The cool kids are over at that cafeteria table, in that corner of the playground, over there, sitting swinging their legs nonchalantly over the edge of the wooden stage, clustered together, safety in numbers.
I once sat among them, at the big round table, hoping that it would help. Within five minutes, one of the handsome young men, he of the sleek feline walk, was smiling at me, slightly but unmistakably. I leaped up, eyes glistening, ready to dive into the sweetness of his embrace. “Er, sorry, I just need to get my bag. It’s on the floor somewhere there. Would you mind taking a quick look?”
I registered to them only as a physical obstacle, like a rock in a rushing stream. They flowed around me, hugging like twins in a Shakespeare play, separated at birth but finding each other in shared joy at this milonga, eagerly giving and receiving invitations, subtly, in the briefest glimmer of a pair of eyes, in the slightest motion of a glossy-tressed head.
Ach, forget it. This tanda is a washout. I turn to my neighbour. There’s nothing for it now but to chat, to gossip, to natter. The eager expressions of concentration are dissolving, we are slouching back into chairs, turning back to each other, resuming conversations. “Where were we?”
But Philomel is here among us, too. Her eyes are fixed, unfocused, on the dance floor, her left foot is jiggling and twitching with the music, her lips mouthing the lyrics. She doesn’t seem to mind not dancing these Di Sarlis. She sits with the rapt yet inward-focused attention of a monk, lost in a music-inspired meditation. She seems visibly relieved when the men stop approaching. And not just Sean. Her brow furrows and she averts her eyes like a bashful bride as one man after another comes up to ask her to dance. Leroy hovers in front of her, in an awkward half-crouch, waiting for her to look up and, with purposeful inattention, she is suddenly absorbed in the buckle of a Comme Il Faut, then rummaging in her bag for a fluff-covered peppermint, paying no more attention to him — in fact, rather less — than to a brick wall at the end of a cul de sac.
We are polar opposites, like people on different hemispheres. The first song of the tanda is our spring. A dozen Bagpusses come to life and stalk their prey. Suddenly, we are sitting up, eager, active, keen, eyes glinting, bottoms poised on the edges of seats, ready to spring up and catch a favoured quarry, a good dancer. And, when the tanda is in full swing and everyone is paired up and the dance floor is full, we turn away in frustration, wrapping ourselves more closely into shawls and cardies in the winter of our discontent and forgetting tango to discuss Dierdre’s daughter-in-law and the house that went up for sale in Northeast, and my mother’s gallbladder operation. Whereas Philomel seems to shrink into herself as the tanda starts, pulling her sweater closer round her, fixing her eyes on the ground, folding her arms forbiddingly, shuffling back in her seat, avoiding all gazes. And, once the danger is over, if no one has asked her to dance, she is all beamy smiles, and relaxed open-armed receptiveness and glimmering eyes and hummed phrases.
Except when he is here, as tonight. The rituals of tango are oddly counterintuitive. We, the ones he doesn’t want to dance with, are greeted with bear hugs, back stroking and real, moist two-lipped cheek kisses. But to dance with her, he retreats to a certain distance and courts her only with an intense gaze that turns into the discreetest head-cocking motion when she spots him. Jayne leans in towards me. “He’s dancing yet another tanda with her.” “Such a snob,” says Kate. “Men — they’re always thinking with their dicks,” adds Lucy. But I spotted it, the brief moment of mutual recognition. The secret handshake, the tiny tattoo, the codeword they exchanged. He knows that she knows that he knows. That only one thing matters: the pleasurable rites of the dance. It’s not all about age. It’s not about personality or about being nice. It’s about a certain earnestness, the union of two believers, of two devotees. And I can imagine that he must find it hard to dance with anyone else after her. She shines here. Like a descant voice soaring above the melody line in a hymn, like the full moon turning the stars pale, obscuring those glimmers which caught our attention more with their number than their light.